Live Is How Americana Was Built
Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic for Bonnaroo – Brace For Impact:
Sturgill Simpson plays Bonnaroo’s What Stage on June 8, 2018, in Manchester, Tenn.
For his 40th birthday, Sturgill Simpson took the main stage on a Friday in June at Bonnaroo, right before headliner Muse.
There were no backdrops, costumes or slicked-up production – just basic overhead white lights. But with musicianship and songs that swerved from unrepentant country to a blurred post-modern soul, Simpson held the 2018 crowd in the palm of his hand.
“I remember there weren’t 35 people at the Basement when Sturgill played there the same night as the CMA Awards a few years ago,” Americana Music Association Executive Director Jed Hilly said of their 2015 Artist/Song of the Year and 2017 Album of the Year honoree.
“It’s a long way from there to being on in front of Muse on the biggest stage at Bonnaroo, especially in a genre that doesn’t have the same drivers as other formats.”
What Hilly isn’t saying outright is long before playlisting and streaming created centralized exposure for Americana acts, savvy artists, agents, managers and label executives were building meaningful foundations – and careers – for Americana artists by putting the music on the road.
Whether it was Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers or The Lumineers doing massive arena business, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and John Prine becoming large theater and amphitheater stalwarts, and emerging forces like Margo Price, I’m With Her, and Kacey Musgraves racking up multiple nights at the Rymans of the world, traditional artist development is creating meaningful careers for song-driven artists.
“There was always a kernel of people who were just like us,” says Bonnaroo co-founder Ashley Capps, an early advocate of Americana acts at festivals. Those people spread the word. Live music is invaluable, because you get collected energy around the songs in a way that can only happen live.
“When you have songs that really touch someone on that emotional level, people tell each other, ‘You have to see this person.’ And it’s difficult to get people to buy tickets to something they don’t know, which is why festivals remove the risk – and raise the discovery aspect. You might hear the buzz (on an artist), but when it’s easy to go check them out? You do. Or someone you’re talking to is excited, so you go along.”
Bonnaroo. MerleFest. Newport Folk Festival. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Those are the big kahunas.
William Morris Endeavor’s Jay Williams, who handles some of commercial country’s biggest names and helms the agency’s Americana division, recognizes the power of festivals.
He also recognizes the other elements needed to create a meaningful career instead of merely an endless string of dates.
“We don’t have Americana stadium acts,” Williams offers. “But it’s a volume business, where discovery is something that is part of it. It’s a wide funnel, and there’s more to choose from than ever.
“There are more Americana tours, and artists on the road. And it’s a really healthy business, in part because the fans are buying into the culture of what this music that’s built on musicianship and songwriting can be. The passion you see: people travelling from out of town, going for two or three shows is amazing. It’s how Jason Isbell can sell out eight nights at the Ryman. It’s the same number of people as the arena, but a much difference experience. The people who love this music want the experience.”
Paradigm’s Jonathan Levine agrees. “I think that’s why Americana aligns with the jam band scene. There, the live performances define that scene, whether it’s stripped down, there are horns or something unexpected going on musically. It’s all artistry, courage and guts.
“With Americana, too, the artists aren’t comfortable relying on yesterday, and the fans know that. They’re taking the audience with them on a journey, saying, ‘Hey! Buckle Up! Here we go!’ That keeps people coming back.”
“In the early years,” Williams remembers, “Bonnaroo really embraced Americana with Buddy Miller, Sam Bush, Gillian Welch. It showed these artists are compatible.
“The lines are getting more blurred between Americana and country. Jason Isbell was nominated for a CMA Award, and Chris Stapleton is very accepted in Americana world. It’s a matter of the music,” he added. “Newport and Telluride were built on that idea, certainly. Now those festivals sell out without even announcing their lineups, because people know.
“A festival world has opened up, as people saw it was working at Bonnaroo, there’s less concern (over radio exposure) because the musicianship, song-writing and vibe fits in – or enhances.”
Hilly agrees, saying, “I joke it’s the Avett Brothers model. In 2007, they played the Station Inn at AmericanaFest. By 2011, they were playing the main stage.
“With no radio, they went from 300 to 500, to 700 to 1,100, to the Rymans of the world and on to arenas. It was commitment to their passion, from the music through the artwork, but also reaching (and creating) your fans one person at a time. It’s a little bit of a longer process, but you’re building a career to last. It’s what Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, John Hiatt, and Guy Clark did, by bringing their individual growth together, or John Prine and the way he’s working with everyone from Bon Iver to Milk Carton Kids, Sturgill, Margo …
“They understand how dynamic this world is, and how hungry the fans are (for great music) if you’re willing to do the work.”
And there are benefits, beyond just the fan-artist live connection, for those whom the Americana community embraces.
“I look at Old Crow (Medicine Show) who got their major label deal busking at our festival, or people like Daniel Glass, who’re now looking to Americana as a place to launch real artists,” Hilly says. “It’s because it’s not just the music, but it’s how the music and the people come together, and why we’re such a growing marketplace.”